WALLA WALLA, Wash. -- Republican billboards in Washington state's 5th Congressional District proclaim why a little-known lawyer named George Nethercutt should be elected Nov. 8 to replace the nationally famous Thomas S. Foley, the speaker of the House:

"Because we need a listener, not a speaker."

That, in a nutshell, is the case Mr. Nethercutt is making against Mr. Foley -- that the speaker is so busy being the most powerful member of the House that he has become an inattentive part-time representative of his home district. Mr. Nethercutt says that if he is elected, he will be a full-time congressman attuned to his constituents' wants.

"I don't want to be the speaker; I want to be the listener," he said in a debate with Mr. Foley here the other day. Mr. Foley, Mr. Nethercutt charged, has greater allegiance to his Democratic Party and President Clinton than to the voters who have sent him to Washington, D.C., for the past 30 years.

Mr. Foley vigorously denied the allegation. "I take my orders from the voters in the 5th Congressional District," he told the audience at the Walla Walla Elks Club. "I am the speaker only because I represent 635,000 voters in eastern Washington."

He regularly comes home to learn what his constituents want, he said, and gets it for them -- "listening, yes, but speaking in a very loud voice for their interests and their future."

Paying for success

It is a sign of the public disaffection with Congress that one of its most influential leaders finds it necessary to defend his ability to bring federal largess to his constituents. "He's paid the price of his success," says his campaign manager, Janet Gilpatrick. "He's almost had to answer accusations on why he is so powerful. There are a lot of unhappy people toward institutions, and he seems to be the lightning rod for it."

That is so not simply because Mr. Foley is the speaker or because he has been in Congress for three decades. He has drawn the lightning ire of many constituents be- cause he went to court and successfully blocked -- temporarily at least -- a state law that would limit House members to three two-year terms and senators to two six-year terms.

Mr. Nethercutt accuses Mr. Foley of "suing his constituents" -- an allegation that the speaker bitterly challenges. He notes that voters in his district twice voted against term limits -- when it failed statewide in 1991 and when it passed in 1992. "I can't be suing my constituents when I'm agreeing with them," he told a sympathetic gathering at a Walla Walla farmhouse the other night.

Still, Mr. Nethercutt drew applause in the debate when he declared: "I pledge to never sue the voters of this state for any reason."

One local businessman, Mike Talley, argued that "the mood of the voters has changed" in Mr. Foley's district and that "he should take a poll of his constituents now."

Compounding hostility toward the lawsuit, in which Mr. Foley joined the League of Women Voters, is evidence that Mr. Foley's lawyers asked the court to pay their legal fees and costs. Mr. Foley said at the debate that his lawyers were working "pro bono," but court documents show that the request was made in June and was rejected by District Court Judge William L. Dwyer in February.

The controversy over term limits is only the most visible of the campaign in which Mr. Foley is fighting for his political career. Hand-in-hand is Mr. Nethercutt's argument that Mr. Foley as speaker shortchanges his constituents, because he works only part-time on congressional district matters, sits on no regular committees and votes only to break a tie.

"We pay him to do a full-time job of representing this district," Mr. Nethercutt told the debate audience. "We're entitled. Frankly, we're not getting our money's worth. . . . With all respect to Mr. Foley, he rarely votes. I want to vote."

Mr. Nethercutt says that if elected, he would seek a seat on the House Agriculture Committee, which Mr. Foley once chaired and is critical to this farm district. Mr. Foley responds that as speaker he will have an influential role in shaping the farm bill to be considered in the next Congress. Mr. Nethercutt counters that by the time the bill gets out of committee and Mr. Foley can weigh in, it will already have been largely shaped.

Further, the Republican challenger argues that "anybody who beats the speaker of the House is going to come to Washington with a loud voice, and I want to use that voice for agriculture."

In the debate, Mr. Foley ridiculed the notion that a freshman congressman could gain the clout that the speaker wields.

"If Newt Gingrich [who would become speaker if the Republicans gained control of the House] comes to him and says, 'I'll take the lowest position on the Agriculture Committee, you take the speakership,' " Mr. Foley asked, smiling, "Is he going to say he doesn't want to be speaker?"

Mr. Foley's ability to bring federal help to his district, which he has soft-pedaled in past campaigns, is his heavy ammunition in this one. Polls earlier had him far behind but now show him trailing slightly. When Mr. Nethercutt observed in the debate that "we're past the time when we send someone to Washington to grab pork and come back," Mr. Foley jumped in.

Citing farm subsidy and farm export programs, he charged that "my opponent would treat all that as pork. This is the kind of public support that makes sense."

Mr. Nethercutt backpedaled: "I've never said anywhere, anytime that I'm in favor of cutting subsidies to farmers."

Mr. Foley cited Mr. Nethercutt's signing of the Republican House candidates' "Contract With America," which calls for certain farm-program cuts.

The speaker's prominence has brought outside money into the campaign, both for and against him. His support of the assault-weapon ban in the crime bill caused the National Rifle Association to break with him, back Mr. Nethercutt and launch an ad campaign against Mr. Foley.

Noting that he himself is an NRA member, Mr. Foley told a gathering of farmers who are gun owners: "I knew I was putting myself in jeopardy by doing this, but I'm not going to take orders from the NRA."

Heads nodded in approval.

Term-limit advocates are also raising money against Mr. Foley from around the country, through what they call a "Defoliate Congress Project."

Key question

But for voters of the 5th District, everything boils down to one question: Do they want to give up the clout that Speaker Foley gives them in Washington?

Terry Holt, a spokesman for the Nethercutt campaign, says a big challenge now is to get voters who are inclined to vote against Mr. Foley "over buyer's remorse."

Mr. Nethercutt put it this way at his Walla Walla fund-raiser: "Don't be fearful the world will come to an end if Mr. Foley is defeated. He's like Methuselah, but he's not going to live forever."

Meanwhile, Tom Foley is alive and kicking, determined not to see his long and influential career end before he is ready to end it himself.

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